What Happens When Your Flight Reservation Doesn't Exist? One of our editors recently found out, proving that even the experts run into travel trouble from time to time. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending—and some advice for fellow road warriors. Budget Travel Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012, 3:51 PM United Airlines lends a hand. (Courtesy contri/Flickr) Budget Travel LLC, 2016

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jan 31 2012

What Happens When Your Flight Reservation Doesn't Exist?

United Airlines lends a hand. (Courtesy contri/Flickr)

This is a little embarrassing, especially for the editor of a travel magazine, so no laughing.

I arrived at LaGuardia Airport on Sunday morning for my daytrip to Chicago, where I was scheduled to speak at the Travel and Adventure Show. I was there ridiculously early (a bad habit, I’m afraid) and the terminal was empty, so I walked up to one of the boarding pass kiosks and inserted by credit card. No Itinerary Found, the machine said. Well, that was clearly wrong. I tried again. No Itinerary Found. Seriously?

A pleasant woman standing behind the counter nearby noticed my frustration and asked if she could help. Something must be wrong with your computer, I said, because it can’t find my reservation and I know I’m on the 9 a.m. Flight to O’Hare. She took my driver’s license and starting punching away at her keyboard. Are you sure you’re traveling today, Mr. Peyser? Yes, I said, calmly. Did someone make the reservation for you? No, I did it myself, and directly on the United website, I replied, a bit less calm. At last, she found my reservation—for Sunday, February 26, at 9 a.m.

I still don’t know how that happened, though I did once set out for the Munich airport a full day before my flight, so anything is possible. Anyway, the point is that before my panic turned into something ugly—it was just before 8 a.m., an hour before "my" flight—the supervisor behind the counter beckoned me over. After punching away at his keyboard, he said he could get me on the 10 a.m flight for a mere $600 more than I’d already paid. Ugh. Was there anything he could do? I was tempted to tell him that I was speaking at a travel show in a few hours, but considering my predicament I wasn’t sure he’d believe me.

The best route, he explained, was to call United’s online booking center, because I had made the reservation through them. They would probably remove the $150 change fee, at least. He gave me the number and told me to come back when I’d sorted it out. (He had also suggested I might do better on a last–minute–deals website, but of course there was no free WiFi in the terminal, so that was out.)

The first person I spoke to on the phone was a little help—he could waive the change fee, but the new ticket was still $400 more, and I’d have to get the last flight out of Chicago, even though I’d originally booked the 5 p.m. flight. When I whined (nicely!) about that, he connected me to another department, and I proceeded to tell my sad story all over again. When I told him I wanted to get on the 9 a.m. flight, now departing in only 45 minutes, he put me on hold for a few minutes; I assume he was having a good laugh. But when he got back on the line, he had indeed found me a seat on the next flight, and also on a plane leaving Chicago at 7 p.m. The cost was “only” about $200 more.

Back in the good old days of flying, United might well have rebooked me on the spot and for a minimal fee, if they charged me at all. Still, considering how much we all complain about the price–gouging, unaccommodating airlines, it was reassuring to get where I wanted to go with relatively minimal hassle and cost. The helpful United employees took a bit of the sting out of the experience, too. Almost as amazing: both my flights were on time.

—Marc Peyser


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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.


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